Secularism Between Religion and Ideology

It seems that every discussion about “secularism” in the Arab world is fraught with entrenched assumptions. The notion is loaded with various accusatory connotations, ranging from the claim that it is the supposed product of a Christian Arab conspiracy against Islam to the assertion that secularization is part of a sinister Westernizing plan that aims to restrict Islam within the mosque. Secularization has also been described as an open call for infidelity and licentiousness. Because of this, writers tend to avoid using the notion in order to sidestep the controversy attached to it. This choice would not be a problem if the matter were purely semantic, since it makes no sense to adhere to a term which causes that much miscommunication. The matter, however, is not merely linguistic, rather it is a matter of a concept that has a specific denotation which can only be accessed through the usage of the term “secularization.” Since the question of the state and its formation has become a much-debated issue in the Arab countries that have witnessed revolutions, the discussion about secularism and its meaning also becomes crucial.
The prevailing meaning of secularism is “the separation of religion and state”. This meaning is understood in the Arab context in two ways; both of which isolate it from its historical context either totally or partially. The first, adopted by Islamist movements, understands “religion” in the phrase “separation of religion and state” to mean all religious manifestations, and therefore considers secularism a mere exclusion of religion from the public sphere and confining it within the realm of religious practices. According to this understanding, secularism is condemned and considered as an equivalent to infidelity. The other conception of “secularism,” adopted by several Arab thinkers such as Mohammed Abid Aljaberi, formulates the concept in a way that aligns with the European context. It considers the meaning of “religion”in the aforementioned phrase as the “church”. Thus, the statement becomes “the separation of church and state”, and this way implicitly concludes that there is no need for Arabs to adopt this notion since there is no “church” in Islam. This means that while this understanding of secularism places the concept in its historical context, it rejects the need for it based on an understanding of Islam which is isolated from its historical context.
The defect produced by eschewing historical context is doubly apparent in these two conceptions of “secularism”. First, when thinking of religion merely as a set of ahistorical texts, and again when thinking of “secularism” as a fixed notion unaffected by historical transformations. Regarding religion, there are a number of verses in Quran that ensure the direct relationship between people and God, and resist the erection of a  clerical class, whom the Quran sardonically describes as opportunists who use scripture as a commodity and hoard gold and silver. The Quran considers offering this priestly class unquestioning obedience a form of idolatry. In spite of this, religious organizations, historically speaking, have been established. The Sunni schools of jurisprudence have always been integrated religious structures which have their own institutions and endowments such as Alazhar, Kairouan, and Ez-Zitouna. Sunni jurisprudence schools have also played political, social, and educational roles such as teaching, Hisbah (verification), judiciary, and issuing fatwas. These institutions play a different role than the one the church has performed in the past. There are two main differences. First, these Islamic institutions did not present themselves as an intermediary between people and God, as much as an intermediary between people and the understanding of the book of God. This implies that these institutions concede the absence of any kind of sacredness such as the one claimed by the Catholic Pope. Secondly, Islamic institutions, unlike the church, did not monopolize the political sphere and rule by themselves. Rather, they shared  power with the Caliphate by exerting their control over issuing fatwas and the judiciary system, and competing with the Caliphate over Hisbah and the Diwan Mazalim (court of complaint) as Radhwan Alsayed has shown in his study (Fiqh and Politics in the Medieval Islamic Experience ).
These institutions have collapsed in the Modern Age. The collapse has been complete in certain cases, such as Turkey, or partial, as in Arab countries. The reason for this collapse is not secularism. As Radhawn Alsayed illustrates, Salafi movements which have called for a direct return to the Quran and Sunnah in a manner that bypasses the body of literature established through centuries by these institutions. In addition, the emergence of the modern nation-state has weakened the power of these institutions by controlling the judiciary and educational systems and marginalizing the role of traditional Islamic institutions in legislation and issuing fatwas. Therefore, viewing secularism as a means aimed for exclusion of religious institutions from the public sphere is meaningless, since these traditional religious institutions do not perform any of its traditional political functions within the modern nation-state as a matter of course.
The demand for secularism in the Arab world is not in opposition to religious institutions which have no presence in the political sphere, but rather against totalitarian movements and parties which were established in the former century and still play a crucial role in contemporary politics. All these parties and movements adopt secular totalitarian ideologies even though some of them raise religious slogans. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is a modern political movement which has more in common with the Nazi party than with traditional religious institution. Therefore, the lessons of the previous century teach us that when these kinds of parties come to power, as in the case of Nazism, they perpetrate horrors which make one-party dictatorships and autocratic rule seem favorable by comparison. In this context, secularism means the separation of ideology and state, and building the state in a form that prevents these movements from taking control of it. For democracy, if it is not immunized with this kind of secularism, will definitely prevent tyranny from returning to power but it will leave the door open for any totalitarian ideology to take control of the state and extinguish freedom, which is the revolutionary purpose.

3 تعليقات Secularism Between Religion and Ideology

  1. يقول Fahad:

    Interesting article. I was struck by the comparison of Muslim brotherhood to the matzo party. You sort of made a claim with no argument . Could you please point out to me the similarities between them ? Regards,

  2. يقول sultan:

    Thank you
    There are different characteristics that identify any totalitarian movement:
    1- it refuses to identify itself as a party sharing a political system with other parties, but rather as a party against the partisan systems, a party above parties. Hasan Albana’s writings show clearly how he refused to include his movement into the partisan system that existed in Egypt in his time.
    2- it refuses to see itself as a “national” movement, which means that it sees itself as a movement that is not bounded by the borders of the nation-state. In other words, it is a pan-state movement.

    these two characteristics, as Hannah Arendt showed in her book Origins of Totalitarianism, are essential in any totalitarian movement.
    However, it is true that Muslim Brotherhood has witnessed some transformations in its position regarding democracy, but that does not mean it becomes fully democratic party.

  3. يقول Ayman:

    The subject needs a lot more theoretical and historical excavation. Western Secular states tend to actually be ideological. For instance, these so called secular states are committed to neoliberal thought and abide by policies recommended by neoliberals . That not to forget neoliberal policies, that are imposed forcefully on underdeveloped countries and that tend almost all the time not to work ! You can review Ha Joon Chang’s book “Bad Samaritans: The myth of free trade and the secret history of capitalism” for more information on the subject. As for your claim about muslim brotherhood I find it to be very out of context.

    Blaming Salafi movements for the collapse of religious institutions is also absurd since the
    dominant religious school of thoughts in most arabian countries is the Ashaari school. The collapse of these institutions actually began during the last epoch of the ottoman empire rule and a lot of islamic scholars during that time sensed the weakness of these instituions, like al Afghani and Al Kawakabi , and thus have postured for what is consider now the reformist school .

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